Was 1981 the most important year in synth as far becoming ubiquitous in the mainstream and hitting the top of the charts internationally?
Yes, ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Oxygène’ came before, while the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer is acknowledged as being the track that changed pop music forever and still sounds like the future even in the 21st Century. French electronic disco like ‘Magic Fly’ and ‘Supernature’ also made its impact.
Meanwhile closer to home, a post-punk revolution was already permeating in the UK with the advent of affordable synthesizers from Japan being adopted by the likes of THE NORMAL, THROBBING GRISTLE, CABARET VOLTAIRE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE. But it was Gary Numan who took the sound of British synth to No1 with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and ‘Cars’ in 1979. It signalled a change in the musical landscape as the synth was considered a worthy mode of youthful expression rather than as a novelty, using one finger instead of three chords.
Despite first albums from John Foxx and OMD, 1980 was a transitional time when the synth was still the exception rather than the rule. But things were changing and there had also been the release of the first Midge Ure-fronted ULTRAVOX album ‘Vienna’ and the eponymous debut long player by VISAGE just as The Blitz Club and the New Romantic movement were making headlines. With the acclaim for the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ in early 1981 which launched the careers of DEPECHE MODE, SOFT CELL, BLANCMANGE, THE THE and B-MOVIE, a wider electronic breakthrough was now almost inevitable.
VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’ went on to be a West German No1 in Spring 1981 and this exciting period culminated in THE HUMAN LEAGUE taking ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ to the top spot in the US six months year after becoming the 1981 UK Christmas No1. It would be fair to say that after this, the purer sound of synth was never quite the same again.
For many listeners, 1981 was a formative year and had so many significant new releases that it was difficult to stretch the limited pocket money to fund album purchases. ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK even took to selling bootleg C90 cassettes on the school playground, promising a value-for-money “two albums for one” deal to support this disgusting habit!
Looking back to four decades ago when there were also albums from DEVO, EURYTHMICS, FAD GADGET, LOGIC SYSTEM, SPANDAU BALLET, SPARKS and TANGERINE DREAM, here are twenty albums which ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK sees as contributing to the electronic legacy of 1981. Listed in alphabetical order with the restriction of one album per artist moniker, this is the way it was in the past, a long long time ago…
DAF Alles Ist Gut
Under a haze of “sex, drugs and sequencer”, the late Gabi Delgado and Robert Görl released an acclaimed album trilogy produced by Conny Plank. The first ‘Alles Ist Gut’ featured their fierce breakthrough track ‘Der Mussolini’ which flirted with right wing imagery in its sardonic reflections on ideology. Causing controversy and confusing observers, DAF attracted a following which Delgado hated. Despite his parents escaping from the Franco regime in Spain, he was always unapologetic about the provocation within his lyrics.
Having conceived the idea of a teenage synthpop group called SILICON TEENS, this dream of Daniel Miller became flesh and blood when he came across a young quartet from Basildon called DEPECHE MODE. Signing on a handshake 50/50 deal to his Mute Records, the group became a chart success. Despite other great songs like ‘Puppets’ and ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’, the group fragmented on the release of their 1981 debut album ‘Speak & Spell’. The remaining trio of Andy Fletcher, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore recruited Alan Wilder, while Vince Clarke formed YAZOO with Alison Moyet.
Following the ‘retirement’ of Gary Numan with his spectacular farewell shows at Wembley Arena in April 1981, four of his erstwhile backing band became DRAMATIS. RRussell Bell, Denis Haines, Chris Payne and Ced Sharpley had been instrumental in the success of Numan’s powerful live presentation and their only album showcased the band’s virtuoso abilities. While the use of four different lead vocalists (including Numan himself on the superb ‘Love Needs No Disguise’) confused the continuity of the album, musically, there was much to enjoy.
Originally released by Rocket Records, currently unavailable
It would be fair to say that the classic line-up of Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor took the arty poise of JAPAN and toned down their androgynous outré to make it more accessible But the enduring appeal of DURAN DURAN is great timeless pop songs and that was apparent on the self-titled debut album which at times sounded like an electronic band with a heavy metal guitarist bolted on, especially on ‘Careless Memories’ and ‘Friends Of Mine’. But most will just remember the two hits ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Girls on Film’.
Thawing considerably following the release of the acclaimed ‘Metamatic’, John Foxx admitted he had been “reading too much JG Ballard”. Exploring beautiful Italian gardens and taking on a more foppish appearance, his new mood was reflected in his music. ‘The Garden’ album featured acoustic guitar and piano as showcased in the Linn Drum driven single ‘Europe After The Rain’. With choral experiments like ‘Pater Noster’, a return to art rock on ‘Walk Away’ and the more pastoral climes of the lengthy title track, Foxx had now achieved his system of romance.
Fronted by the cool persona of vocalist Glenn Gregory, HEAVEN 17’s debut ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ was a landmark achievement, combining electronics with pop hooks and disco sounds while adding witty social and political commentary, taking in yuppie aspiration and mutually assured destruction. The first ‘Pavement’ side was a showcase of hybrid funk driven embellished by the guitar and bass of John Wilson. The second ‘Penthouse’ side was like an extension of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Travelogue’, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh’s swansong with the band.
After Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to form HEAVEN 17, vocalist Philip Oakey and Adrian Wright recruited Susanne Sulley, Joanne Catherall, Jo Callis and Ian Burden to record ‘Dare’ under the production helm of Martin Rushent. Like KRAFTWERK meeting ABBA, the dreamboat collection of worldwide hits like ‘Love Action’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ had a marvellous supporting cast in ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘I Am The Law’, ‘Seconds’ and ‘Darkness’. Only the Linn Drum rework of ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ blotted the album’s near perfection.
JAPAN took the influences of the Far East even further with the Chinese flavoured ‘Tin Drum’. A much more minimal album than its predecessor ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, there was hardly any guitar while the synths used were restricted to an Oberheim OBX, Prophet 5 and occasionally the Roland System 700. David Sylvian’s lyrical themes of ‘Tin Drum’ flirted with Chinese Communism as Brian Eno had done on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), a point highlighted by the pentatonic polyrhythmic single ‘Visions Of China’ and its less frantic sister song ‘Cantonese Boy’.
With his synthesized symphonies, Jean-Michel Jarre helped popularise the sound of electronic music. ‘Magnetic Fields’ was his first long player to utilise the Fairlight CMI which allowed him to absorb some musique concrete ideas such as water splashing and hydraulic train doors into his compositions. Featuring the klanky Korg Rhythm KR55, it was a much more percussive album than ‘Oxygène’ and ‘Equinoxe’ had been, complementing the metallic textures that featured. However, ‘The Last Rumba’ confused some who considered the home organ closer incongruous.
Having scored an unexpected UK hit with the sonic beauty of ‘I Hear You Now’, Jon Anderson and Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou presented a second album in ‘The Friends Of Mr Cairo’. Featuring ‘State Of Independence’ which was to become a hit for Donna Summer, the album was laced with spiritual overtones over symphonic synths, cinematic piano and dialogue samples from films. However, the album is now best known for the single ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ which had not been included on the original tracklisting.
‘Computer World’ could be considered one of the most prophetic albums of its time. KRAFTWERK forsaw the cultural impact of internet dating on ‘Computer Love’, but the title track highlighted the more sinister implications of surveillance by “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard” with the consequences of its prophecy still very relevant discussion points today. But the dynamic rhythmic template of ‘Numbers’ was to have a major impact on Urban America as it was mutated into hip-hop, rap and techno.
LANDSCAPE From The Tea Rooms Of Mars To The Hell-holes Of Uranus
Jazz fusion combo LANDSCAPE were led by producer Richard James Burgess who co-designed the Simmons SDSV with Dave Simmons as the first standalone electronic drum kit, with circuitry based on the ARP 2600. Using a Lyricon, the first wind-controlled synth played by John Waters as its lead hook, ‘Einstein A-Go-Go’ was a fabulously cartoon-like tune about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of theocratic dictators and religious extremists! Meanwhile, ‘European Man’ predated EDM by having the phrase “electronic dance music” emblazoned on its single sleeve.
Rising from the ashes of JOY DIVISION and reconvening in late 1980, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris chose the name NEW ORDER as a symbol of their fresh start and after deciding against recruiting a new vocalist, Morris’ girlfriend and later wife, Gillian Gilbert was recruited. Despite Martin Hannett still producing, recording sessions were fraught although synths were taking greater prominence while Morris used a Doctor Rhythm DR55 drum machine on ‘Truth’ and ‘Doubts Even Here’. ‘Movement’ may not have been a great debut album, but it was an important one.
Following his much-publicised retirement from live performance, the last thing Numanoids expected from their hero was an understated Brian Eno homage. At nearly an hour’s playing time, ‘Dance’ outstayed its welcome and despite the title, these were mostly downtempo pieces with ‘Slowcar To China’ and ‘Cry The Clock Said’ stretching to 10 minutes. Much was made of JAPAN’s Mick Karn playing fretless bass although he was only on five of the eleven tracks. It was the wrong album at the wrong time but in ‘A Subway Called You’ and ‘Crash’, there were some great moments.
‘Dance’ is still available via Beggars Banquet Records
”I think ‘Architecture & Morality’ was a complete album, it was just so whole” said Paul Humphreys in 2010. The big booming ambience of the album next to big blocks of Mellotron choir gave OMD their masterpiece, tinged more with the spectre of LA DÜSSELDORF rather than KRAFTWERK. Featuring two spirited songs about ‘Joan Of Arc’, these were to become another pair of UK Top 5 hits with the ‘Maid of Orleans’ variant also becoming 1982’s biggest selling single in West Germany.
SIMPLE MINDS Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call
A generally overlooked ‘double’ opus, ‘Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call’ exploited the KRAFTWERK, NEU! and LA DÜSSELDORF influences of SIMPLE MINDS to the full, under the production auspices of Steve Hillage. From the singles ‘The American’ and ‘Love Song’ to the mighty instrumental ‘Theme For Great Cities’ and the unsettling dentist drill menace of ‘70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall’, with basslines articulating alongside synths and guitars layered in effects that when harmonised together were almost as one, this was SIMPLE MINDS at close to their very best.
In their cover of Northern Soul favourite ‘Tainted Love’, SOFT CELL provided the first true Synth Britannia crossover record. Possibly one of the best albums of 1981, ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ captured the edginess of minimal synth arrangements while married to an actual tune. At the time, art school boys Marc Almond and Dave Ball were rated higher than DEPECHE MODE. But with the follow-up success of the Top5 singles ‘Bedsitter’ and ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, the pair became reluctant popstars, chased around by both teenagers and paparazzi.
‘Sex’ was Belgian trio TELEX’s third album and a collaboration with SPARKS that saw the Mael brothers contribute lyrics to all nine tracks. Experiments in swing on ‘Sigmund Freud’s Party’ displayed a sophisticated vintage musicality and ‘Haven’t We Met Somewhere Before?’ was the hit single that never was. Meanwhile, like KRAFTWERK meeting YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, ‘Brainwash’ was quite obviously the blueprint for LCD SOUNDSYSTEM’s ‘Get Innocuous!’. However, the tracklisting was considerably revamped for the UK release in 1982 as ‘Birds & Bees’.
‘Sex’ was released by Ariola, currently unavailable
‘Rage in Eden’ began with the optimistic spark of ‘The Voice’ but it was something of a paranoia ridden affair having been created from the bottom up at Conny Plank’s remote countryside studio near Cologne. There was synthetic bass power on tracks like ‘The Thin Wall’, ‘We Stand Alone’ and ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’, but there was also the tape experimentation of the title track which used the chorus of ‘I Remember’ played backwards to give an eerie Arabic toned “noonretfa eht ni htaed… rebmemer i ho” vocal effect.
‘BGM’, the third full length album from YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA was the first recording to feature the now iconic Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer and was also made using a digital 3M 32-track machine. Following the technopop of the self-titled debut and ‘Solid State Survivor’ albums, ‘BGM’ included reworked pieces such as ‘Loom’ and ‘1000 Knives’. The best song ‘Camouflage’ was a curious beat laden blend of Eastern pentatonics and Western metallics from which the German synth band CAMOUFLAGE took their name.
Originally released in October 1981 by Alfa Records in Japan, ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ was a product of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s most prolific year.
This period that followed his acclaimed second solo album ‘B-2 Unit’ in September 1980 came between two YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA long players ‘BGM’ and ‘Technodelic’, although it is now widely known that Sakamoto was largely absent from the ‘BGM’ sessions. YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA began as a one-off electronic disco project at the behest of Alfa Records to whom Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto were already signed.
So the threesome always had solo projects running in parallel with what the public considered their main band and even played on each other’s solo albums. But ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ saw Sakamoto collaborating more freely outside of his usual trio with a wider pool of musicians from a variety of backgrounds.
Recorded in Tokyo in Summer 1981 and highlighted by a photo on the back artwork, the project was based around the threesome of Sakamoto, co-producer Robin Scott of M fame and guitarist Adrian Belew who had worked with Frank Zappa and David Bowie. Meanwhile, lyrical contributions came from Shigesato Itoi, Tetsuro Kashibuchi and Sakamoto’s then wife Akiko Yano.
Despite the more organic spontaneous approach to ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ after the rigid technological experimentation of ‘B-2 Unit’, Sakamoto still employed the programming skills of Hideki Matsutake aka LOGIC SYSTEM who had played a similar role in YMO’s pivotal albums. Sakamoto opted to record the album digitally on the new 3M 32 track recorder that Alfa Records had installed in its studios before mixing it in analogue.
Today, a bilingual crime drama such as ‘Giri / Haji’ can get commissioned by the BBC and receive critical plaudits while Anime and Manga are effectively part of the mainstream.
But in 1981, the world was very different world and anything artistic emerging from South East Asia often found itself Westernised to suit European and particularly American tastes. This was all despite the US success in 1979 of YMO which was achieved by taking a very Japanese approach.
Thus when ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ was issued as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s third solo record proper in Japan, the interest in its Western collaborators saw Epic Records taking up its option for Europe via their arrangement with Alfa Records. However, when it was released in October 1982, the album came in a significantly altered version entitled ‘Left-Handed Dream’.
Featuring three tracks reworked in English with Robin Scott on lead vocals, there was also the addition of a new song called ‘The Arrangement’ which sounded strangely like SPARKS and the dropping of two tracks, ‘Saru No Le’ and ‘Living In The Dark’.
It meant to that the original parent album has largely become lost to international ears… until now!
Wewantsounds, a label specialising in rare international releases particularly from Japan, reissue ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ in its original tracklisting outside of Japan for the first time, save for a small-scale Dutch double vinyl release on Plexus in 1981.
Sakamoto’s aim was for the music to evolve organically with the musicians working in collaborative improvisation. These parts were retained or discarded by Sakamoto depending on whether they complimented his vision.
One of the album’s highlights was ‘Relâché’, a joint Sakamoto / Scott / Belew effort that featured Takahashi and Hosono; the marvellous instrumental art funk was dominated by Belew’s textural guitar flights, with the track reminiscent of TALKING HEADS in their Brian Eno helmed phase.
But it all began with the percussive moods of ‘Boku No Kakera’, a traditional song experiment using technology but authentically sweetened with Kaoru Sato’s flanged violin and Robin Thompson’s hichiriki.
A signal to Sakamoto’s soundtrack future on ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and ‘The Last Emperor’, the man himself gave an understated speech, an idea he would reprise for ‘Bamboo Houses’, his 1982 single with David Sylvian.
‘Saru To Yuki To Gomi No Kodomo’ was shaped by a hypnotic pulsing passage while Sakamoto-san charmingly took on the lead vocals, as on several numbers in the set. Sparse and quirky, ‘Kacha Kucha Nee’ saw Sakamoto singing the words of his wife before an unusual tribal clatter took hold. Meanwhile, ‘The Garden Of Poppies’ was interesting in its use of a morphing Taiko drum tattoo.
As well as pop focussed material, there were illustrations of Sakamoto’s love of the musical avant garde with the abstract ‘Slat Dance’ and the closing animal noise experiment ‘Saru No Ie’, although both were too indulgent to be truly enjoyable.
Demonstrating Sakamoto’s prowess on marimba with an African feel emanating, ‘Tell ‘Em To Me’ was complimented by Belew’s impressionistic approach and six string growl that served him well playing with TALKING HEADS.
‘Living In The Dark’ saw more art funk with Hosono and Takahashi backing another Sakamoto vocal where the generous space between all the participants was particularly noticeable.
With a clean and uncluttered production, ‘Living In The Dark’ also gave Sakamoto a chance to show off his classical piano virtuosity. ‘Venezia’ saw Sakamoto’s naïve vocal return backed by a chorus of friends including Masami Tsuchiya, Shoji Fujii and Akira Mitake of IPPU DO plus the song’s author Tetsuro Kashibuchi. It was a joyous moment with pretty piano and subtle synths, but such was the sum of its parts that the rhythm section almost went unnoticed as it melted into the backdrop.
Although the English variants featuring Robin Scott were released in January 1982 as a separate EP in Japan, it is said that Sakamoto was not happy with how these tracks were reworked in London without his full involvement and then ended up on what became ‘Left Handed Dream’. To be fair, Scott’s vocal versions of ‘Relâché’ as ‘Just About Enough’ and ‘Venezia’ as ‘The Left Bank’ were not bad.
But perhaps those four reworks should have stayed on ‘The Arrangement’ EP from a conceptual stand point if nothing else.
This reissue of ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ offers the purer Sakamoto vision as it was intended, a director’s cut capturing the tension between contrasts of electronic versus traditional, digital versus analogue and pop versus the avant garde.
Hearing it in 2020, ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ is a fascinating document tracing the exact point when Ryuichi Sakamoto began to leave technopop behind to head towards more esoteric climes and become the renowned soundtrack composer that everyone knows today.
At the age of 19, Hideki Matsutake was taken on as an apprentice by Japanese synth maestro Tomita, thus beginning his relationship with the huge modular synthesizers of Dr Robert Moog.
This formative experience with Tomita proved a vital stepping stone, leading to a musical collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto and the creation of his own music unit LOGIC SYSTEM.
The link-up saw Matsutake eventually integrated into the iconic YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA as an ‘unofficial’ fourth member both in the studio and live with Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, working on the self-titled debut, ‘Solid State Survivor’, ‘×∞Multiplies’, ‘BGM’ and ‘Technodelic’.
In parallel, LOGIC SYSTEM released the acclaimed albums ‘Logic, ‘Venus’ and ‘Orient Express’ while also giving technical assistance to artists such as Masami Tsuchiya from IPPU DO and SANDII & THE SUNSETZ, both of whom were involved in the final concert tour of JAPAN as live guitarist and support band respectively.
With a new LOGIC SYSTEM album ‘Technasma’ being released in September 2020, here is an interview with a pioneering electronic musician who rarely speaks to the English-language music press.
In the interview, Hideki-san discusses in fascinating detail his electronic music journey from the challenges of importing the first Moog modulars into Japan through to the creation of his new LOGIC SYSTEM work using a mixture of both vintage and current synthesizer equipment.
Why was Wendy Carlos’ ‘Switched on Bach’ album so important for you in becoming interested in synthesizers?
Not sure if it was important as such, but it was certainly the first time I heard the sound of synthesizer on a record. I didn’t even know what the word “synthesizer” meant. I was intrigued by the jacket when I saw ‘Switched On Bach’ in a record shop.
It had a picture of a person dressed as Bach and behind him, or I should say ‘her’ or ‘them’, was this machine with lots of knobs. Next year, I began working for (Isao) Tomita-sensei and soon discovered that he was planning to import that curious-looking machine – synthesizer – in six months. I cannot tell you how excited I was!
What do you think convinced Tomita to take you on as an assistant when you were still quite young and inexperienced?
My father was a professional sax player. He was managed by an agency called Horipro. Tomita-sensei’s brother was also working at the same agency. Tomita-sensei was about to set up his own agency around that time and his brother was going to help him. They were looking for assistants and I got introduced through my father. It was one of those happy accidents.
Legend has it that Tomita had a REALLY difficult time importing his Moog IIIp into Japan, can you explain a bit about this process and how hard it was convincing customs at the airport to release it once it had arrived in the country?
First of all, it was the time when the exchange rate was fixed – 360 yen to one US dollar, which is more than 3 times the value of today (one US dollar is about 110 yen today). Plus, instead of 10% consumption tax we have today, we had excise tax for luxury items which was very, very high. To make matters more complicated, there were no trade companies that dealt with expensive items like this in those days.
Photo by Kohei Matsuda
Tomita-sensei could have gone to the US, bought the Moog IIIp and brought it back himself. But that meant he would have had to fill in millions of documents for the custom.
He tried to find an easy and inexpensive solution. He even contacted a trading firm in Hong Kong to no avail. Finally, he found a Japanese company called Aska Trading which agreed to import the Moog IIIp. In fact, I also purchased my Moog IIIc through them.
Anyhow, I believe, apart from some universities, Tomita-sensei was the first person to import this kind of electronic instrument to Japan privately. Custom officers couldn’t tell what this machine was. Tomita-sensei told them it was a musical instrument, but they didn’t believe him! What made things more complicated was these knobs on the Moog – this is a true story – these knobs are exactly the same as the knobs used on the strategic bombers when they drop bombs! I swear it’s true! *laughs*
I guess that made those custom officers even more suspicious and consequently, his brand new Moog was detained at Haneda International Airport for over a week, maybe ten days. Tomita-sensei got so p*ssed off. He told them “Look, it’s a musical instrument. Why would it come with a piano-like keyboard, otherwise?”. They were still not convinced. Tomita-sensei contacted Dr Moog and asked him to send some photos of Moog IIIp with musicians actually playing it! Dr Moog sent him photos with the likes of Stevie Wonder playing Moog in the studio. Finally, that did the trick!
How did Tomita and yourself go about learning to use the Moog IIIp?
Photo by Kohei Matsuda
We both had to learn pretty much by ourselves. That said, there was this section called the Electronic Music Room at NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. EMR created legendary sounds such as the electronic bells used for the opening ceremony at Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. There was an engineer with a degree in electronics there called Professor Shiotani. He was a good friend of Tomita-sensei. So I think he learnt the basics of electronic music from him.
If you could name the most important thing that you learned from working with Tomita, what would it be?
One thing Tomita-sensei told me was, in order to create sounds on synthesizer, one needs to have a clear blueprint and palette of sounds in one’s head. Arrangements are like painting. The thing about synthesizer is it is, by nature, neutral. There’s no high or low or bright or dark when you begin creating sounds. You have to design everything. It took me a while to appreciate what he told me. It makes perfect sense now. Other than that, I had to learn pretty much everything by myself.
You got hold of your own Moog IIIc in 1972, the system was insanely expensive at the time (30 million-40 million yen?), what was the situation with the luxury tax that was placed on certain items back then?
Good God, no! It wasn’t like 30 million-40 million yen! The Moog IIIc cost about 6-7000 US dollars at the time. I added some extras so it was closer to the expensive end of the scale.
So, that worked out to be about 2.5 million yen. But the luxury tax was about 200%!!! So, after commission and shipping fee, it ended up approximately 10 million yen.
How did your Moog IIIc modular system come to be named ‘Tansu’?
When you look at my Moog IIIc, on every corner of the wooden cabinets, you will find metal corner protectors attached. I was touring a lot back in the days. And every time we placed Moog IIIc back in the flight case, it got hit and gradually the corners got alarmingly damaged.
One day, I attached these metal corner protectors which are typically used on a traditional Japanese cabinet or “Tansu”. It must have been around 1983 or 84, I took it to the recording studio.
Someone, a session musician, asked me why I attached these protectors. I said to him to protect it. He then told me it made it look like a Tansu! *laughs*
I thought that was a cool name. I had always thought the name Moog IIIc is a bit of a mouthful to us Japanese. That’s why I began calling it ‘Tansu’.
You first came together with Ryuichi Sakamoto on ‘Thousand Knives’ in 1978, how did you work together to produce such an ambitious sound that would shape much of YMO’s early sound?
Sakamoto had a clear concept from the beginning which was to combine Asian melodies with complex Jazzy chords with lots of tension notes. Many people cover ‘Thousand Knives’ but most of them simplify chords. The original was harmonically much more complex. I believe he already had this idea when he was still a student at the Tokyo Art University. The musical complexity of ‘Thousand Knives’ led to his nickname “Kyoju (professor)”.
He wanted to produce an album with the sound of synthesizer and asked someone “who has a Moog III in Japan?”. The person told him he knew only two, Isao Tomita and Hideki Matsutake. That’s how I got to work on this album with him.
How did you discover the Roland MC8 MicroComposer and at the time, did you think a machine like this could totally change the way music would be made in the future?
I was astonished when I first heard about it! I’m not really an accomplished keyboard player so I felt I had no choice but to get it regardless of its price tag. I was still surprised when I did find out how much it cost!
But I bought it anyway, it cost 1.2 million yen! Yet, you could only programme up to 4,000 notes. I said 4,000 notes but they mean more like parameters. And each note required 3 parameters. So, in practical terms, you could only programme up to 1333 notes which really didn’t last long. It only had 2MB memory. I decided to add 8MB of extra memory and that cost another 200,000 yen! In other words, in order to have 8,000 plus notes at my disposal, I needed to cough up 1.4 million yen! *laughs*
But seriously, yes, I was convinced it would totally change the way music would be made in the future. Firstly, it was capable of playing parts human musicians couldn’t physically play. Secondly, you only have to programme to make the whole instrumentation play staccato or do the rit. It really made you feel like a conductor!
Did you need a good mathematical brain to use the Roland MC8 MicroComposer? What amount of time would it take to program a track like ‘Behind The Mask’ for example?
I don’t think you need a good mathematical brain as such. Maybe some rudimentary arithmetic helps – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. You need to be able to work these out quickly. Plus, touch-typing skills are vital. Remember, you need to enter three parameters to programme a single note so you’ve got to be quick yet accurate. I practiced a lot.
The programming of ‘Behind The Mask’ did not take that long. What I did with the ‘arpeggio’ part was that I first programmed the part in 8th note and recorded it. And then overdubbed the same notes but delayed them by 8th note. Obviously it is quicker to programme 8th notes than 16th notes. Plus the song has no break which made the programming less complicated.
You enter one erroneous parameter and you screw up the rest of the part so you have to be very accurate. You do need to have an understanding of music in a mathematical way. It got a lot easier when the MC4 came out.
Today, you can just click to get your work from a hard drive but the Roland MC8 MicroComposer used a cassette dump; did this cause anxiety in the studio and live?
I had a stress-related stomach ache everyday! That’s why I can drink like a fish today! *laughs*
Seriously, I honestly prayed and prayed. You just could not predict what would go wrong. Luckily, the MC8 only stopped twice during the live performance. When that happens, everyone in the band knew there was nothing I or anyone could do, so the rest of the musicians went ahead and played without the sequenced parts.
There’s a live double album by YMO consisting of live recordings in Europe on one disc and the same performance in the US on the other disc. If you listen to ‘Behind The Mask’, you can hear the sequenced part on the European recording, but it’s absent on the American version. What happened was this: when I pressed ‘play’, something went wrong with the tempo setting and played the entire part in about five seconds! It made this fantastic abstract noise and the audience went wild! They thought it was way cool.
Anyhow, seeing there was no way I could restore the data on the fly, I sent Akiko Yano, who was playing keyboards during that tour, the sign saying there’s nothing I can do. She went ahead and began playing the opening keyboard riff. I never told any music journalists this story before. The noise was edited out on the final record but I would love to listen to it! Wouldn’t you?
What did you think when you were with YMO performing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and you saw people dancing so happily… or maybe you didn’t as you had your back to the audience because you were operating your Moog IIIc?
I suppose the American audiences were fascinated by the combination of electronic disco beat with the oriental melodies, ‘Tong Poo’, for instance. On top of that, Kazumi Watanabe played electric guitar solos. People probably couldn’t figure out whether it was Fusion – I don’t think the term ‘Techno’ was coined at that time – or what. I think that je ne sais quoi aspect excited people.
When the MC8 was replaced by the MC4, did you help Roland with the development? What improvements happened to make it easier to use?
No. I had nothing to do with the development of the MC4. I’ve had some degree of partnerships with many musical instruments manufacturers. I exercise what I call omnidirectional diplomacy with these manufacturers. I treat them equally. I do not wish to endorse any of them or their products. I treat them and help them equally and prefer not to be tied to one company. I just don’t like having to belong to one organisation. That’s why I’m not interested in any endorsement… unless they pay me half a billion yen a year! *laughs*
Jokes aside, I guess where it boils down to is that I want to be free. That said, I have helped some manufacturers develop certain products, but they were not the MC4 or MC8. However, the engineer from Roland did ask me about MC8 – what the problem was, why it was difficult to use, what improvements I would suggest and so on. They addressed and rectified the issues I suggested with the MC4.
One of the later YMO albums you worked on was ‘BGM’ which also has the first recorded use of the Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer. At the same time, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer had arrived as well. Were you surprised when this analogue 808 machine became such a legendary technology?
The mere fact that TR808s are now really expensive in the second-hand market speaks volumes about the machine.
In the first place, electronic instruments going up in price as an old second-hand item was simply unheard of! I can understand why guitars or violins go up in value, but the components of electronic devices inevitably deteriorate with time which means they don’t sound like they actually did in 1980. In that sense, it is perhaps more sensible to just sample the sounds of these vintage electronic gear.
That being said, there is no question about the TR 808 being a masterpiece. It is also one of the last of great analogue drum machines. the TR909 was also a great drum machine but the sounds were partly sampled and not entirely analogue. I’ve used the TR808 a lot on LOGIC SYSTEM’s new album ‘Technasma’. You need to listen to it to find out where and how I used it!
So, was I surprised? Well, it’s more of a sense of elation rather than surprise. I am really pleased to see the new generation of musicians appreciating the true value of this great vintage machine.
How did your music for ‘The Infinite Space Octave’ become ‘Loom’ on ‘BGM’?
‘The Infinite Space Octave’ was originally produced for a TV commercial but never materialised. I tried really hard to produce it on the Moog IIIc but soon I realised I needed more gear to create the infinite space octave. One thing I did discover was that human ears mostly hear around 2,000Hz and not much else.
The infinite space octave begins in the extremely low frequency and ends in the extremely high frequency, both of which are not audible to a human ear. If you generate this drone-like rising sound one after another and you get this effect that resembles MC Escher’s drawings – a note or notes that keep rising forever. That’s the trick behind ‘The Infinite Space Octave’.
Anyhow, I was working on it at the Sony studio in Roppongi. One day, someone from Sony dropped by and heard what I was doing and thought it was really interesting. That’s how I ended up making the record ‘The Infinite Space Octave’. It took about a week to record. And during the recording, Haruomi Hosono came to the studio to see what the devil I was up to. That was when he was about to form YMO. ‘BGM’ came out a few years later, but Hosono must have remembered that recording. He asked me to reproduce the same sound for ‘Loom’.
‘BGM’ was made on a 3M 32 track digital recorder but Hosono-san did not like the sharp sound quality produced, what is your opinion about early digital recording methods?
I have no strong opinion on it. I still think the analogue sound is superior. Digital audio sounds like somebody has put make-up on the original sound to me. But I feel, ultimately, it’s a question of preference.
Of course, the sound of the digital recorder was so clean and I thought it was fine at the time. I just don’t think that was the sound texture Hosono was after for that particular album. During the mastering of my new album ‘Technasma’, I felt some tracks needed the analogue touch. So, we applied an Abbey Road VST to emulate the analogue recording. They sound superb.
When we used the 3M digital recorder, I wasn’t sure whether I preferred it or not. Today, I can confidently say I like the analogue sound for its greater range and natural tape compression.
You were involved in the first five YMO albums, which are your favourite tracks where you made a key contribution and why?
That’s a difficult question… ‘Firecracker’ is a memorable track only because it was a technically difficult recording. As far as the recording goes, the ‘Technodelic’ and ‘BGM’ albums mean a lot to me and somehow I contributed more to those albums.
In fact, my favourite track would have to be ‘Cue’. I think it represents the aesthetics of YMO. Love the bassline on that track – simple yet complex. The vocal track is very cool, too. Totally original.
You were often called “the fourth member of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA”, did you feel very much part of the family in the studio and on tour?
The thing was they were the artists. I was the techie guy. I was merely a support member, certainly not one of the main members. Still, they are all good friends of mine, even to this day.
Most Western electronic music fans know you best for your unit LOGIC SYSTEM which debuted with two very contrasting albums in 1981. Did you have a specific plan for the project?
Kind of. Prior to the actual production of the second album ‘Venus’, my music publisher, Fuji Pacific, found out how well my first album ‘Logic’ was doing in Europe. They said to me “Look, you should put out the follow-up album as soon as possible! Have you any ideas for the next album?” – I said to them, well I would like to make a less “technoie” record.
After that, I think it was the producer from Fuji Pacific, who told me the concept of my next album should be “Human vs Machine” which I thought was cool. They also told me I could hand pick any musicians I wanted to work with. I said “Seriously? Are you sure?”*laughs*
I thought of the American musicians I worked with on Akiko Yano’s ‘To Ki Me Ki’ which was recorded in New York in 1978. Also, I’d always wanted to work with Michael Boddicker – he was already a famous programmer and his name was on almost all the records I liked at that time. I wanted live musicians to play instruments and I would take care of all the programming parts.
Save for some chords which I played on keyboard, the first album was entirely programmed. I wanted something different, a bit of rock, a bit of contemporary music. Roger Powell, for instance, comes from a classical background. He is an amazing pianist. Roger’s synth solos on ‘Venus’ were absolutely awesome. So, to answer your question, no, I didn’t have a specific plan as such. I just wanted to try something different.
I wanted each LOGIC SYSTEM’s album to tell a story. Different stories. I thought making a mere sequel to the first album would result in a commercial and artistic failure. That’s why even those jackets look very different. I still love the album jacket of ‘Venus’ – the girl releasing some mysterious beam from her mouth! *laughs*
‘Domino Dance’ is probably the best known LOGIC SYSTEM track, how was this piece written?
How was it written? That’s actually quite a bizarre track, when you think about it. The bass line, for example. Perhaps it sounded original because it was so bizarre. The track was written by Ryo Kawakami. He is better known as an arranger. When he and I began working on the first album, we wanted to try something different. We wanted to create a melodic and relaxing album with a good sense of humour.
Actually, Kenji Omura played guitar on that track. But we treated it so much it doesn’t sound like guitar at all! The synth sound in the intro was inspired by the arcade game ‘Pac Man’. Also, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of dominoes falling at the end.
‘Venus’ was a very different sounding album to ‘Logic’, were you at all worried about how well it would be received?
I wasn’t thinking about that all that much, to be honest. All I was thinking was the concept as I told you before, “Human vs Machine” – get virtuosos to play fantastic phrases and I would attempt to out-perform them by programming phrases no human can physically play. When I think about it, it was an amazing album.
Vinnie Colaiuta who played drums, played with bands like WEATHER REPORT. Whilst Nathan East is now one of the most famous bassists in Japan, if not the world. I didn’t know who Nathan was at the time, but he was such a nice guy. He would come up with a new bass line and then ask me “what do you think, Matsutake?”
Jerry Hey, again, is a highly regarded trumpet player. He played on many J-Pop records. He played on some of Tetsuya Komuro’s tracks. I may have been the first Japanese musician to work with him. What was amazing about Jerry was that he would play both riffs or pre-written phrases and solos in one take. This is inconceivable in Japan. You would record on two separate tracks. Yet, his performance was always impeccable. Truly impressive. So, all these amazing musicians’ performances inspired me to work harder and come up with better programming and arrangement.
Don Grusin was also cool. He brought his synth, I think it was an Oberheim OB8, to the studio by himself with no assistant. I offered to help him but he said it was okay. Given his stature, I thought it was amazing. Although he was very popular already, he remained humble. I learnt a lot from these musicians.
There was the Toshiba LMD-649, an early sampler which YMO used on ‘Technodelic’, did you use it on ‘Venus’?
We used the Linn LM-1. I don’t recall using Toshiba LMD-649 on ‘Venus’. If my memory serves right, it came out around the time we finished recording that album. So, we couldn’t have used the Toshiba sampler on ‘Venus’.
In many respects ‘Venus’ is a very influential album; in 1981 that mix of electronics and live musicians was ahead of its time. Listening back, one can hear the sound of acts such as DAFT PUNK (‘Take A Chance’) and AIR (‘I Love You’). Looking back, what are your feelings about the album now?
In many respects, ‘Venus’ was the most unusual album I have ever released as LOGIC SYSTEM. The jacket design, for a kick-off. Looking back, I think I wanted to try experimental stuff in many music genres. Since it was recorded in LA, I had a limited studio time. We mixed the album there.
It was the first and the only time I had my record mixed overseas! Record labels don’t have that kind of budget these days. If I said to them “I want my album recorded and mixed overseas” today, I’d be shown the door! *laughs*
Anyhow, it was a great experience. I’ve got a lot of fantastic memories from that session. I worked extremely hard on computer programming, possibly the hardest in my entire career. I spent a lot of time working on it. I think the highlight of the whole recording was when I worked with Roger Powell.
It was so much fun. Roger has an extensive knowledge on synthesizer, possibly more knowledgeable than I. I really wanted him to create drum sounds on synths which he did, and I was so impressed. I learnt a lot from him. Michael Boddicker brought a massive stack of synths with his gigantic truck. The studio looked like a music store. But he ended up using just 2 or 3 of them! *laughs*
To me, that somewhat symbolized the LA music scene. Michael was also a super nice guy. I miss them both. I would love to meet Roger and Michael again. I met Don Grusin again in 2016. He was at the Musical Instruments Fair Japan 2016. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, but he remembered me. It was a lovely reunion.
In comparison with your work between 1978-1981, much of the UK electronic music scene was very simple and ’monophonic’ sounding. How closely did you watch British synthesizer acts and did you have any favourite bands at the time?
I liked THE HUMAN LEAGUE. I bought a lot of British electronic records. I wanted to listen to the latest records as soon as possible.
So I used to buy them from the import shop which was expensive! I also listened to the likes of NEW MUSIK which was recommended by Yukihiro Takahashi. Whenever Yukihiro or Ryuichi told me such and such albums had really cool synth sounds, I would go and get those records. But they weren’t just British, lots of European acts as well.
LOGIC SYSTEM supported TANGERINE DREAM in Hong Kong in 2017, are you a fan of this legendary band and how was this experience?
I’m a huge fan of TANGERINE DREAM. I’ve got all their albums. None of the original members are there anymore, as you know. They now have a Japanese member called Hoshiko Yamane. They were supposed to come to Japan to play in July or August this year. Hoshiko-san sent me the invite through Facebook messenger. But, of course, it was cancelled.
TANGERINE DREAM played Moog and EMS live back in the days. I would have loved to see them then. They also did the music for the film ‘Sorcerer’ in 1977. I loved the soundtrack of that film. I used to listen to it repeatedly.
‘Orient Express’ saw you explore European music traditions, how were you inspired by this train journey? Did you ride on it or was it your imagination?
I had the title ‘Orient Express’ first. I’ve never taken the Orient Express. The only express train I’ve ever taken in Europe was a TGV, but it’s not quite the Orient Express is it? Anyhow, I’ve always loved trains and train journeys. I read the biography of Georges Nagelmackers who was the founder of the Orient Express. He talks about how difficult the business was. War affected his international railway business a great deal. Railways connect countries and thereby bring peace, ideally, at least.
This is a true story – Georges Nagelmackers’s ultimate dream was to extend the Orient Express as far as Tokyo! I often imagine that, had he succeeded, perhaps the war could have been avoided. So, after reading his biography, I wanted to express these ideas through music.
There are also so many beautiful places in Europe. I thought it would be great to create tracks inspired by these places. I explained the concept to several composers and asked them to write tunes. That’s how that album was made. The most memorable tune would have to be the last track, ‘Georges Nagelmackers’ written by Masaaki Ohmura. I still find it deeply moving.
On the ‘Orient Express’ album, you did a cover version of ‘Simoon’ from YMO’s first album, why did you choose this?
For some reason, that tune always reminded me of the desert. Istanbul, the final destination of the Orient Express, is in Turkey which is kind of close to Arabian Desert. So, I thought “yeah, why not?” – I also thought the melody fitted the mood of the album. Plus, I wanted a female singer to sing on this album. I got Harumi Ozora, who is sadly no longer with us, to sing this tune.
There is a new LOGIC SYSTEM album ‘Technasma’ being released at the end of August, what can listeners expect from it?
Actually, the original concept of this album was to make the sequel to the first LOGIC SYSTEM album. So, inevitably, it is sequenced sound-based. It consists of 50% analogue synths and 50% digital synths. It’s very different from ‘Venus’, for example.
That said, there are some human elements, too. I played trumpet and Mioko Yamaguchi played piano. Mioko was the main collaborator. The thing about her is that she is first and foremost a songwriter. This was her first experience to compose for an instrumental album.
I told her what I wanted and gave her some advice on composing instrumental pieces. We began working on it from November last year. The Covid-19 scare began around February. We both felt it was some kind of invasion from outer space. Virus is invisible and so is music.
We decided to fight the corona virus with our music. I feel the sequence programme reflects the sense of apprehension in the air. It sounds as though the genuine, honest sound of analogue synths is fighting the sampled sounds, the invaders. The tension between those sounds, analogue vs digital, if you like, became the key concept of this album.
The title ‘Technasma’ is intriguing, it’s a little-known word, but has an interesting meaning. Can you explain the background behind the choice of this title?
It’s a Greek word meaning ‘trick’. Synthesizers are full of these tricks. That doesn’t mean to cheat people or anything. It’s more like musical magic, as in Yellow ‘Magic’ Orchestra. I wanted a title that represented that magic.
My manager and I were talking about the word ‘trick’. We didn’t use the word ‘trick’ so we were looking up the word ‘trick’ in various languages. When we found this word ‘technasma’, we knew that was it! Also, it sounds like a compound word of ‘technique’ and ‘inazuma’ which means ‘lightning’ in Japanese.
‘Technasma’ has a fantastic equipment list associated with it, from your Moog IIIc through to the lowly Stylophone. If you could pick a piece of gear that helped define the sound of the album, what would it be?
It would have to be the Sequential Pro 3. In my opinion, it is the greatest analogue synth in recent years. It is a truly marvellous piece of equipment.
One of the highlights on ‘Technasma’ is a rework of ‘Closing’ from Philip Glass’ iconic minimalist album ‘Glassworks’. What made you choose this piece to cover, was a kind of homage to Tomita-sensei by reworking a classical piece in a more electronic way?
This track was arranged by Akio Dobashi, an ex-keyboardist from a J-Pop band called REBECCA. His original arrangement was fabulous, quite dancey.
I just changed a few things and made it sound more classical. I’ve always loved Philip Glass and his polyrhythmic minimal music and wanted to cover one day. So, what made me choose this piece to cover? Well, because I happen to love that tune *laughs*
As for the homage to Tomita-sense, actually no. That was not in my mind at all.
‘Revive’ is a beautifully melodic hybrid of Jean-Michel-Jarre style synth pads, piano and techno drums. What exactly were you trying to ‘revive’ with this piece?
I think music requires two themes. In the case of ‘Revive’, it begins with a simple melody on piano. It’s so simple anyone can play it. But it doesn’t go anywhere to resolve. It resolves in the middle part where the strings kick in. So, a composition needs two things; the main theme or the statement and the resolution. That is the element of LOGIC SYSTEM’s music. I suppose I’m trying to ‘revive’ this traditional format.
Another thing about that track is the sound of piano. If you listen to piano carefully on your headphones, you will notice there are many layers. You can hear some distorted sounds in the distance, for instance. That’s the trick or, if you like, the ‘technasma’ *laughs*
A number of tracks on ‘Technasma’ like ‘Crisis’ are composed by Mioko Yamaguchi. How did you work together with the arrangements as on ‘Mondrian’s Square’, where there are whistling and swirling synth lines that one could imagine being sung?
Those sounds are my idea. In fact, that’s my homage to Tomita-sensei. I almost imitated what he had done. The whistling sound represents our desire to be happy, yearning for joy amidst the invasion by you-know-what.
I’ve never revealed this before – there’s a little noise during the break towards the end of the track. That ‘noise’ is actually someone’s snore! I honestly believe snoring represents peace. You cannot afford to snore unless there’s peace. In the battlefield, you’ll be killed as soon as you start snoring. You breathe because you are alive or even revive. The album is full of ‘tricks’ like that.
It has taken many years, but Japanese music now has a much higher profile in the UK, why do you think genres such as Vocaloid have had a surge in popularity over here now?
I think there’s a lot of craft put into Japanese music production, meticulous attention to detail. It’s never simple. Maybe people in the UK are beginning to appreciate that. Japanese songs usually take the traditional four-part oriental poetry structure – introduction, development, twist and conclusion. So, even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can still appreciate the sense of story there. Our sense of melodic aesthetics are slightly different from the UK. The closest European music would be Italian Canzone. But it’s not the same.
As the Covid-19 situation has put live music in so much doubt at the moment, are there any plans for you to do any more LOGIC SYSTEM live concerts and if not, what is the future for this unit?
I would love to play live, of course! There’s absolutely nothing like live music. Electronic music, especially the lower frequency, needs to be experienced live.
That said, I’m also interested in performing a live streaming session. Synthesizers are ideal for that, I think. I am hoping to organize an online music event. Hope you can come see me there!
LOGIC SYSTEM ‘Technasma’ uses the following equipment:
Moog IIIc, MiniMoog Voyager, Moog Mother 32, Moog GrandMother, Moog DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother), Emu Vintage Keys, Emu Orbit, Emu Planet Phatt, Emu Carnaval, Emu Morpheus, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Sequential Pro 3, ARP Odyssey, Clavia Nord Lead, Arturia V Collection 7, SpectraSonics Omnisphere, Yamaha Montage, Yamaha FS1R, Yamaha MU2000, Roland Fantom, Roland Jupiter-Xm, Roland TR808, Roland TR8, Roland VP770, Roland SC-88 Pro, Dubreq Stylophone
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Hideki Matsutake
Special thanks to Toshihiro Arai for his valued assistance and co-ordination
The soundtrack of The Blitz Club was provided by its resident DJ Rusty Egan and its story is more than well documented.
This vibrant post-punk scene had a flamboyant clientele who were dubbed ‘Blitz Kids’, ‘The Cult With No Name’ and ‘New Romantics’.
It became the catalyst for several bands including VISAGE, SPANDAU BALLET and CULTURE CLUB, as well as assorted fashion designers, visual artists and writers.
Rusty Egan told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “I just played as much as I could fit in, it was not all disco. It was a bar and opened after work. I’d arrive 8.30–9.00pm and played all my faves till it was packed, then I got them dancing and at the end, I slowed down”.
The dancing style at The Blitz Club often involved the swaying of arms at a distance from the face like slow motion maraca shaking so as not to spoil any carefully hairsprayed styles. Meanwhile, feet movements were often impossible as the small dancefloor was often overcrowded!
With Steve Strange as doorman and fashion gatekeeper, the concept for what was initially a “Bowie Night” came together at Billy’s nightclub in Soho in Autumn 1978 in an effort to find something new and colourful to escape the oncoming drabness in the Winter Of Discontent. After a disagreement with the owners of Billy’s, the pair moved their venture to The Blitz Club.
Although Rusty Egan had been a soul boy and an active participant in punk through a stint rehearsing with THE CLASH and then as a member of THE RICH KIDS with Midge Ure, the two friends became fascinated with electronic dance music though the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer and KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ album which had been a surprise favourite in New York discos and whose title track referenced David Bowie.
“There was a couple of years of punk which Midge Ure and myself weren’t too impressed with in terms of the clubs and the environment in Thatcherite Britain, it was horrible in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool!” recalled Egan, “So we were just trying basically to grasp the good in life, trying to be positive in a very negative time.”
Photo by Gabor Scott
Although Egan curated an eclectic playlist of available synth works supplemented with soundtracks and relatable art rock tunes, tracks were comparatively scarce in this new innovative electronic form.
So with studio time available following the split of THE RICH KIDS, Ure and Egan hit upon the idea of making their own electronic dance music for The Blitz Club, fronted by Steve Strange. Ure came up with the name VISAGE for the project and presented the demo to his then employers at EMI Records, but it was rejected!
Undeterred, the pair recruited Billy Currie from a then-in hiatus ULTRAVOX plus MAGAZINE’s Dave Formula, John McGeoch and Barry Adamson to record the first VISAGE album at the-then newly constructed Genetic Studios of Martin Rushent.
When Billy Currie toured with Gary Numan in 1979, he and fellow keyboardist Chris Payne composed what was to become ‘Fade To Grey’; it was included on the eventual ‘Visage’ album released by Polydor Records in 1980 and the rest is history, reaching No1 in West Germany!
VISAGE was the beauty of the synthesizer played with symphonic classical overtones fused to the electronic dance beat of Neu Europa and visually styled like a cross between the Edwardian dandies and Weimar Cabaret. Midge Ure remembered “it was a major part of my life and Steve was a major part of that period”.
The meeting of Ure and Currie in VISAGE led to the diminutive Glaswegian joining a relaunched ULTRAVOX who released the iconic ‘Vienna’ album in 1980. Co-produced by Conny Plank, the German always thought in terms of sound and on the title song, he imagined an old man at a piano in a desolate theatre who had been playing the same tune for forty years.
And when Billy Currie came to record his ivory parts, that was exactly the feel which Plank had engineered. It was to become a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the New Romantic movement when it was released as a single, stalling at No2 despite being one of the best selling singles of 1981, gracing the UK charts at the same time as ‘Fade To Grey’.
Having started as a “Bowie Night”, the man himself became fascinated by this emergent cult with no name that he had inspired. In 1980, Jacqueline Bucknell, an assistant from his label RCA who was also a Blitz Kid, had taken Bowie down to The Blitz Club to cast extras to appear in a video for his new single ‘Ashes To Ashes’; among the chosen ones was Steve Strange.
Utilising Roland guitar synths and an ARP string machine with a final burst of ARP Odyssey, David Bowie saw ‘Ashes To Ashes’ as an epitaph for his artistic past as he lyrically revisited the Major Tom character from ‘Space Oddity’ over a decade on.
With this, The Blitz Club had now become a mainstream phenomenon as the BBC’s Nationwide programme sent an investigative team in, signalling a changing of the guard in popular culture with parallel scenes going on at The Rum Runner in Birmingham, The Warehouse in Leeds and Crocs in Rayleigh from which DURAN DURAN, SOFT CELL and DEPECHE MODE were to respectively gain their fledgling followings.
The perceived elitist exclusivity of The Blitz Club had partly become legend as a result of Steve Strange refusing entry to Mick Jagger for his sporting of blue jeans. Playing on this and adopting its electronic aesthetic to attract attention, five lads from Islington formed SPANDAU BALLET and initially only performed at special events which were by invitation only. Essentially becoming The Blitz Club’s house band, the quintet later scored worldwide success with a less radical sanitised pop soul sound.
Singer Tony Hadley said to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “Our first album The ‘Journeys To Glory’ will always be one of my favourite Spandau albums, we were just young excited lads trying to make our mark on the world. There’s a rawness and energy on that album that is impossible to recreate. I love synthpop and still one of my favourite songs is SPANDAU BALLET’s first release ‘ To Cut A Long Story Short’.”
Not all enjoyed their visits to The Blitz Club; Billy MacKenzie notably highlighted the vapid nature of the scene in ASSOCIATES’ second hit single ‘Club Country’. But buoyed by its success, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan eventually vacated The Blitz Club and took over The Music Machine in 1982 and relaunched it as The Camden Palace, making it one of the UK’s first modern superclubs.
But the spirit of The Blitz Club still lives on and recently, there came the surprise announcement that Zaine Griff was to join Rusty Egan and ‘Fade To Grey’ co-writer Chris Payne to perform the songs of VISAGE in an audio-visual presentation at a number of events across Europe including W-Festival in Belgium.
Using Dave Rimmer’s 2003 book ‘New Romantics: The Look’ as an initial reference point and calling on the memories of Rusty Egan himself to verify whether he had actually played these songs in his DJ sets, here are 25 Songs Of The Blitz Club selected by ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK to celebrate the flamboyant legacy of that Blitz Spirit.
ROXY MUSIC Both Ends Burning (1975)
Following-up the hit single ‘Love In The Drug’, ‘Both Ends Burning’ was ROXY MUSIC’s second ‘Siren’ call. With Bryan Ferry’s stylised but anguished vocals, it was a track which laid down the sophisticated art pop trail that JAPAN and DURAN DURAN would later be pursuing. Featuring a prominent coating of ARP Solina string machine sweetened by hypnotic bass and squawky sax, ‘Both Ends Burning’ is probably the most under rated single in the Roxy canon.
Available on the ROXY MUSIC album ‘The Best Of’ via Virgin Records
With a title that was an anagram of TALKING HEADS, the New York art school combo were the inspiration for the frantic metallic romp of ‘Kings Lead Hat’ which became a favourite at The Blitz Club. Brian Eno aped David Byrne in his vocal delivery, while he was later to produce three of the band’s albums as he moved further away from art rock as a solo artist. The song was later covered by ULTRAVOX in their live sets during the early phase their Midge Ure-fronted incarnation.
KRAFTWERK reacted as they generally did to negative criticism by writing a song. A response to a review that said their motionless persona at live performances was like ‘Showroom Dummies’, the sparse eerie atmosphere was punctuated by a tight and rigid electronic drum sound that was completely new and alien, something Rusty Egan was looking to emulate. Incidentally, the count-in of “eins zwei drei vier” was a deadpan Germanic parody of THE RAMONES!
An Iggy Pop collaboration with David Bowie, the Vampiric glam of ‘Nightclubbing’ was the former James Osterberg’s commentary on what it was like hanging out with him every night. Utilising a simple piano melody and a cold Schaffel rhythm via the mechanical precision of a Roland drum machine, legend has it that Iggy insisted on keeping it, saying “it kicks ass, it’s better than a drummer”. Alongside ‘Lust For Life’, ‘Nightclubbing’ also featured in the soundtrack of ‘Trainspotting’.
Available on the IGGY POP album ‘The Idiot’ via Virgin Records
Utilising Warren Cann’s modified Roland TR77 rhythm machine, this was John Foxx moving ULTRAVOX! into the moody ambience pioneered by CLUSTER, away from the art rock of the self-titled first album and the punky interim single ‘Young Savage’. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ had initially been premiered as a far spikier uptempo number for the B-side of ‘ROckWrok’. Incidentally, the ‘CC’ credited on saxophone is not Chris Cross, but a member of the art collective GLORIA MUNDI.
Available on the ULTRAVOX! album ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ via Island Records
LA DÜSSELDORF’s second long player ‘Viva’ was their most successful album and the title track was a regular staple at The Blitz Club. An oddball slice of cosmic space rock sung in French and German by Klaus Dinger, proceedings were aided by the dual motorik thud of Hans Lampe and Thomas Dinger. Performed with the same group of musicians, ‘E-Musik’ by Dinger’s previous band NEU! had also been a favourite at The Blitz Club, influencing the intro of the ULTRAVOX B-side ‘Face To Face’.
Commissioned by Alan Parker for the graphic prison drama ‘Midnight Express’, the noted director wanted some electronic accompaniment to the crucial chase scene of the film in the style of ‘I Feel Love’. The bassline from Giorgio Moroder’s own 1976 cover of ‘Knights In White Satin’ was reappropriated. The fruit of their labours was this Oscar winning Hi-NRG romp bursting with VANGELIS-like keyboard melodies, driven by an intense slamming and syncopated by popping pulses.
Already a fan of German music and ‘Autobahn’ by KRAFTWERK in particular, Daniel Miller’s sense of experimentation and an adoption of punk’s DIY ethic led him to buying a Korg 700s synthesizer. Wanting to make a punk single with electronics, he wrote and recorded the stark JG Ballard influenced ‘Warm Leatherette’ as an independent single release on his own Mute Records. Meanwhile, The Blitz Kids came up with their own bizarre twisting and turning dance entering a human arch to accompany it…
The late Wolfgang Riechmann is the forgotten man in the Düsseldorf axis having been in SPIRITS OF SOUND with Michael Rother and Wolfgang Flür; had his life not been tragically cut short, he certainly had the potential to become a revered and respected cult musical figure. The opening title track of his only album chimed like a Cold War spy drama before the beautifully almost oriental melodic piece imagined PINK FLOYD meeting CLUSTER over a delicate Schaffel beat.
ZAGER & EVANS’ pessimistic ditty was perfect fodder for the first VISAGE demo. Steered by Midge Ure using his freshly acquired Yamaha synths and punctuated by Rusty Egan’s incessant Roland drum machine and synthetic percussion, ‘In The Year 2525’ was perfectly resigned aural dystopia from its vocodered intro onwards. Steve Strange’s deadpan fronted the sombre tone perfectly but Ure’s vocal backing and counterpoints added that extra slice of musicality.
Available on the VISAGE album ‘The Face’ via Universal Records
One of first Japanese bands to have a Top 20 hit single in the UK was YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA in 1980. ‘Firecracker’ was a cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny but actually released as ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’. Recorded in 1978, the parent self-titled album was noted for its use of the then brand new Roland MC8 Micro-Composer to control the synthesizers. The result was a clean, exotic pop sound that was unusual, even in the synthpop heartland of Europe.
Produced by Zeus B Held, ‘No GDM’ was written by androgynous art history student Gina Kikoine in honour of the “great dark man” Quentin Crisp and featured an array of ARP and Moog synths to signal the birth of a new European Underground. Unsurprisingly, the song gained heavy rotation at The Blitz Club. The nonchalant, detached vocal influence of GINA X PERFORMANCE went on to be heard in the music of LADYTRON, CLIENT and MISS KITTIN.
Working with Giorgio Moroder, David Sylvian submitted ‘European Son’ for the session in Los Angeles but it was rejected by the producer. Instead, the Italian offered several of his demos, of which, Sylvian picked the one he considered to be the worst so that he could stamp more of his own vision for the developing synthesized sound of JAPAN. Considered to be too avant-garde at its inception but ahead of its time, unbeknown to Moroder and Sylvian, they had just conceived DURAN DURAN!
Available on the JAPAN album ‘Assemblage’ via Sony BMG Records
THOMAS LEER & ROBERT RENTAL Day Breaks Night Heals (1979)
Originally released on THROBBING GRISTLE’s Industrial Records, ‘The Bridge’ album saw Scottish duo Thomas Leer and Robert Rental trading vocal and instrumental duties. With an air of FAD GADGET, ‘Day Breaks Night Heals’ showcased some of Leer’s pop sensibility that was later apparent in his Arista solo period and in ACT with Claudia Brücken, while Rental maintained a dark experimental presence in this slice of artful electronic blues. Robert Rental sadly passed away in 2000.
Available on the album ‘The Bridge’ via The Grey Area
Manipulating their influences like SPARKS and MAGAZINE with a very European austere, Glasgow’s SIMPLE MINDS were “underground, pulsating through” thanks to the rhythmic interplay of Derek Forbes’ bass with Mick McNeil’s synths. Charlie Burchill was now thinking beyond the sound of a conventional electric guitar while the precision of under rated drummer Brian McGee locked the glue. That just left Jim Kerr to throw his bizarre shapes and pontificate over this dark avant disco.
Having graced the UK Top 20 again with the tremendous ‘No1 Song In Heaven’, SPARKS continued their Giorgio Moroder produced rejuvenation and had an even bigger hit with ‘Beat The Clock’. Percussively augmented by Keith Forsey who was later to produce Billy Idol, Russell Mael’s flamboyant falsetto more than suited the electronic disco sound while the programmed backing meant that Ron Mael could stoically maintain his image of doing nothing.
Belgian trio TELEX comprised of Marc Moulin, Dan Lacksman and Michel Moers, with the intention of “making something really European, different from rock, without guitar”. Opening their debut album ‘Looking for Saint Tropez’ which also contained their funeral robotic cover of ‘Rock Around The Clock’, ‘Moscow Diskow’ took the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow, adding a funkier groove compared with KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ excursion for what was to become a cult international club favourite.
From their third album ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’, the uncompromising THROBBING GRISTLE led by the late Genesis P-Orridge were neither jazzy or funky! Gloriously sequenced by Chris Carter via a Roland System-100M modular, ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ was mutant dystopian disco lento with a hypnotic rhythm punctuated by a synthetic whip-crack for that S&M twist as Cosey Fanni Tutti’s whispered vocals competed with pentatonic melodies and electronic drill noises!
Zaine Griff had a Bowie-esque poise was tailor made for The Blitz Club and Tony Visconti saw enough in him to produce his debut solo album ‘Ashes & Diamonds’. Featuring Hans Zimmer on synths, the title song was sitting just outside the Top 40 and earned a performance on Top Of The Pops but the episode was pulled thanks to a Musicians Union strike. Demonstrating the song’s longevity despite it not being a major hit, it was recently covered live by American alternative rockers MGMT.
‘Being Boiled’ was the first song Philip Oakey wrote with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh for THE HUMAN LEAGUE, his bizarre lyrics being the result of a confusion between Buddhism and Hinduism while highlighting the plight of silk worms. Intended to reimagine FUNKADELIC’s funky overtones as synthetic horns, this brassier re-recorded version with fatter electronic beats was included on the ‘Holiday 80’ EP and the ‘Travelogue’ album, becoming a dance staple of The Blitz Club.
Available as a bonus track on THE HUMAN LEAGUE album ‘Travelogue’ via Virgin Records
Didier Marouani wrote the worldwide hit ‘Magic Fly’ but having left the band, Roland Romanelli and Jannick Top continued as SPACE. The rousing thrust of ‘Tender Force’ was, like ‘Magic Fly’, produced by Jean-Philippe Iliesco who later invited Rusty Egan to contribute a timbale heavy remix of this synth disco tune ; he was later to begin an ill-fated business relationship with Iliesco who was named by Midge Ure in his ‘If I Was’ autobiography as responsible for putting a wedge between him and Egan in VISAGE…
Although now known as a duo, eccentric Swiss pioneers YELLO actually began as a trio of Dieter Meier, Boris Blank and Carlos Peron. Later remixed and extended, the military drum tattoo at the start of ‘Bostich’ was deceiving as an electronic throb quickly set in. This was perfect avant garde disco for The Blitz Club with a quirky range of vocal pitches from Meier while the track also included a style of speedy European rap later that was repeated on their only major UK hit ‘The Race’ in 1988.
Available on the YELLO album ‘Essential’ via Mercury Records
Electronic pop music was often seen as pretentious, LANDSCAPE had their tongues firmly in their cheeks as evidenced by ‘Einstein A Go-Go’. “The song is a cautionary tale about the apocalyptic possibilities of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of theocratic dictators and religious extremists.” said the band’s Richard Burgess, “We talked about the track conceptually before we wrote it and our objective was to make a very simple, cartoon-like track with a strong hook that would belie the meaning of the lyrics!”
Written as a B-side instrumental for The Blitz Club’s resident dance troupe SHOCK to work a routine to, ‘R.E.R.B.’ was constructed by Rusty Egan and Richard Burgess, hence the title. Burgess had been doing the linking interludes with a Fairlight on the first VISAGE album and brought in Roland System 700 modular driven by the Micro-composer while Egan triggered the brain of the synthesized drum system that Burgess had been working on with Dave Simmons for its punchy drum fills.
Available on the SHOCK single ‘R.E.R.B.’ via Blitz Club Records
Produced by Daniel Miller, one of the first SOFT CELL recordings on signing to Phonogram was the seminal ‘Memorabilia’. While not a hit, it was critically acclaimed and become a favourite at The Blitz Club. Dave Ball’s deep Roland Synthe-Bass and klanky Korg Rhythm KR55 provided a distinctive danceable backbone to accompany Marc Almond’s souvenir collecting metaphors about sexual promiscuity. After this, SOFT CELL were signed by Rusty Egan to Metropolis Music for publishing.
Capturing the essence of their performance at Sydney Opera House in October 2018, Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto present ‘Two’, a part live-part studio prepared collection of new improvised material and assorted highlights from their joint back catalogue of five albums and one soundtrack.
Incorporating computers, synthesizers, glockenspiel and grand piano, the German Japanese duo undertook a series of live events entitled ‘Two’ before culminating in Sydney where the two hour set was recorded and edited down to form this album.
Minimal and touching on ambient, classical, glitch, avant-garde jazz and experimental electronica, ‘Two’ acts as a work that can function outside of the concert hall without visuals, one that can enter an environmental listening world to provide escape and space to relax or think.
While ‘Two’ operates as an immersive whole, the entry points for casual listeners will undoubtedly be when electronic and soundtrack legend Ryuichi Sakamoto takes to synth and piano. ‘Propho’ is a case in point and sees the YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA pioneer take to his beloved Prophet 5 to sculpt haunting soundscapes reminiscent of his work for the film ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’.
Meanwhile, ‘Trioon II’ from the duo’s acclaimed 2002 debut album ‘Vrioon’ sets Sakamoto’s beautifully elegant piano playing alongside Noto’s subtle interference and spatial texturing, like Debussy to a glitchy beat. These two tracks very much set up an unexpectedly soothing and meditative experience. More unsettling though is the crackle of ‘Emspac’ which owes a debt to KRAFTWERK’s ‘Geigerzähler’.
Despite Noto’s gently rumbling backdrop, ‘Morning’ is a strangely considered and immersive discordant piece, before leading into the more percussive piano shaped mantra of ‘Iano’ from 2005’s ‘Insen’. ‘Berlin’ is more abstract, accurately sound painting the city’s unique aura with creative use of signal noise creeping in, while the lengthy ‘Naono’ from 2011’s ‘Summvs’ steadily builds into a cascading cacophony of piano, strings, noise and bleeps.
Closing the set with ‘The Revenant Theme’ from their soundtrack 2015 survival film drama ‘The Revenant’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, the combination of hypnotic rhythmic passages and haunting orchestrations provide a glorious cinematic tension.
‘Two’ may have been derived in a concert setting but free of applause and audience presence in its audio only presentation, it acts as a body of work on its own that possesses an understated textural rhythmic quality, where atmosphere and melody also get their space to shimmer and shine.